01 February 2011

Some reflections on John Barry (1933-2011)

In almost a hundred posts on this blog, I've somehow managed to avoid any mention of one of my passions, the movie soundtrack.   A good score can make a bad movie tolerable; and, as John Williams demonstrated in The Empire Strikes Back, it can make a good movie one of its decade's best.  If it weren't for Sam Spence's scores for NFL Films and its weekly highlight shows in the 1970s, I would probably have never developed any taste at all for music.

Superior scores are probably the best reason either Out of Africa (1985) or Dances with Wolves (1990) won an Oscar for Best Picture.  Without the lush John Barry scores that also graced 11 James Bond movies and numerous other works over 40 years, Wolves might have still won on novelty1; but the execrable Africa would have had no chance.  Barry's passing yesterday at age 77 brought to mind a couple of personal memories.

The theme from Born Free, which won John Barry his first two Oscars in 1966 (for both theme and overall score), might actually be my first memory, period.  Kids gravitated towards the theme song, which finished twelfth on the 1966 Billboard Top 100.  Even as a toddler, I couldn't get enough of it; and that only intensified once I became old enough to adore and admire the kitties lions in the movie itself.  As I turned five years old, I kept wondering when it would next show up on TV.  Several years would pass before I realized it, but Born Free's soundtrack was the first one I enjoyed for its own sake.  (Barry's Bond scores to that point soon followed.)

His last Oscar came for the Dances with Wolves score, a cassette copy of which I owned a little over thirteen years ago.  Along with almost all my other worldly possessions, that little tape was in the car I was driving to California.  Day three of that moving trip stretched from the desolation of central Wyoming to the desolation of northern Nevada.  Outside the environs of Salt Lake City and Reno, my listening choices on the radio were minimal.  Whenever I encountered mountains, especially in Nevada, those choices dropped to nothing, not even classical-music NPR stations.

From Carlin, Nevada, Interstate 80 climbs into the last such dead zone, which includes the Emigrant Pass, a dual tunnel and, finally, the Twin Summits.  At the western end of the zone, the road curves gently into one last hill.

As it happened that day in late January, I popped that Dances with Wolves cassette into my car's tape player.  The first two cuts played as I crossed the dead zone.  Then, at the top of the last hill, this played:

I could see the Interstate dropping into yet another vast, desolate plain, marred with the low ridges that define that part of Nevada.  As the short prelude of low strings played on my stereo, the haze of the Summits made the ridges in the background appear as one.  At exactly the moment the high strings cued in, the single ridge began splitting into its components, each ridge seeming to split from its neighbors.  The timing between the music inside my car and the developing scenery outside was so exquisite, it made me believe in a higher power.

Somewhere far above, with John Barry as spokesman, God was welcoming me to the West.

Or not.  The date was 22 January 1998.  When NPR came back into listening range several minutes later, the first thing I heard was President Bill Clinton -- swearing to the nation that he "did not have sex with that woman."

1.  Sioux civilians good, U.S. Army bad? Gasp!

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